“Music should play a bigger part in life”

Clara James was a professional violinist before becoming a neuroscientist. She tells us about her keen interest in the beneficial effects of making music on the brain.

Although initially appearing quiet and serious, Clara James lights up when she starts talking about her research projects in the neurosciences. And when she describes her life before research – having started off as a professional violinist – she is just as enthusiastic, with a fund of anecdotes and explanations about music. “I’m often asked whether I regret making the switch from music to research. But I don't in the least, because I'm still pursuing my fundamental passion: learning new things.” That's what drives Clara James, a neuroscientist who plays the violin. Or should we say a violinist who does neuroscience?

The conductor of our orchestra: the brain

Let’s rewind for a moment. After a ten-year musical career in the Netherlands, Clara James left her own country and accompanied her partner to Geneva. She continued giving concerts but longed to start studying again. Research had always interested her – in fact her father was a cell biologist – so she enrolled at the University of Geneva, where she took a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in experimental psychology, followed by a doctorate in neuroscience. Now a senior lecturer at the Geneva School of Health Sciences (HEdS), she also directs its research institute and she teaches the neuropsychology of music at the University of Geneva. “I’m constantly asking myself questions, I love maths, and the endless variety of science really appeals to me – because each day gives me a chance to discover something new or invalidate previous results. Maybe I’ve always been a scientist at heart,” she says.

Clara James’ particular interest is the brain. “Because it is the conductor of our own individual orchestra!” she explains. Her expertise as a musician enables her to study the links between music and the brain: how do musical activities or intensive practice on a musical instrument affect brain plasticity? She explains that our brains are constantly adapting from the day we are born until we take our last breath. It is therefore never too late.

One of her studies, for example, showed that children who play in a school orchestra develop better intellectual and motor skills. Another research project looked at the role of perfect pitch, and found that this rare ability is not essential for top-level musicians.

Music keeps us young

More recently, with the help of funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation in particular, Clara James has primarily concentrated on how music can help counteract cognitive and sensorimotor decline in the elderly. “The aim is to suggest ways of prolonging independence and thus improving the well-being not only of elderly people themselves, but also of those around them,” she explains. For example, people who have learned to play the piano in their later years retain certain parts of the white matter in their brains – i.e. their neural connections – for longer, especially in a region of the brain important for memory. But that's not all. According to her research, elderly people who play musical instruments can distinguish speech more clearly against a noisy background, have better working memory, and are more skilful at using certain everyday objects such as mobile phones and tablets. All these benefits are accompanied by adaptations within the brain. Her findings have convinced Clara James of the following: “Actively making music should play a greater role throughout our lives and be accessible to everyone regardless of income.”

We have one final burning question: how does playing the violin help Clara James as a scientist today? She replies without hesitation: “Look at my office: I’ve got two computers, four screens, sticky notes everywhere. In my job, I’m constantly having to juggle several things at once. In fact I sometimes lie awake at night thinking about it all. By contrast, when I play the violin my brain only has to focus on one thing. It’s a lot like meditation.”